The Sore-eye Bird

A while back I posted a chapter from the book I am working on and received some great feedback–some of which I am still wrestling with. Here is another chapter draft. Please let me know what you think. Any and all feedback is welcome from simple typos to major issues. Thanks! I have been working on the book a lot this month, and hope to put some more pieces out there for your perusal soon, so please check back often. If you like it, feel free to share it with others. The more readers, the better.

The Sore-eye Bird

The boys stood around a small fire in a clearing, just a few yards into the woods. As the crow flies, they were only three hundred yards from the cabin, but between them and home was an unpredictable river and a lot of darkness.

“Birds are about to migrate,” Kimball said with all the authority a newly-minted thirteen year old could muster. “The leaves on the poplars are the size of squirrel’s ears. We’re right on time.”

Jimmy nodded silently.

“I reckon the migration will start tonight… if It’s dark enough for the giants. Birds can’t come ’til the giants do, you know.”

Up to this point, Jimmy believed everything his cousin told him, and why wouldn’t he? All winter his cousin had taught him volumes about the forest and river, but giants pushed his trust. “There’s no such thing as giants,” he argued confidently.

“Yes, there are, Papa told me that Me-maw saw one once. And you know Me-maw would only say the truth… and I heard them last year!”

Kimball knew that bringing up Me-maw would give his claim a special gravity. Me-maw (or Ms. Olive, as she was known by all the folks in the Gorge who weren’t kin) was a legend up and down the gorge and on both sides of Chestnut Ridge, and Jimmy was envious that Kimball had known her. Me-Maw passed away when Kimball was four years old, but he had heard so many stories about her, that he honestly thought he had known her personally. Her face, her long silver hair, her gentle voice were as clear to him as his memories of swimming in the river last summer. That’s the way memories are when you’re thirteen.

There were more stories about Me-maw than there were stories in the Bible, and folks said she knew stuff nobody else knew. Mama told them that her grandmother-in-law was part Indian, though nobody knew what “kind of Indian” she was, and that the stories she told were passed down through many generations. “You can’t find that kind of wisdom in books, or in school,” she told her son. “That is the wisdom of the elders.”

Kimball took what his Mama told him about Me-maw to be gospel, and so did Jimmy.

Jimmy leaned in, as Kimball continued. “Giants use the river like we use roads,” He said. They travel the rivers because if they traveled on land, they would leave footprints and then people could track them. There aren’t very many giants left so they have to be extra careful not to be found out by people.”

Coming from his teen-aged cousin, who once sat at the feet of Me-maw, this made perfect sense, and Jimmy nodded his head slowly to show his understanding then looked towards the river with wide eyes.

“You don’t need to worry,” Kimball reassured him. “They won’t come out until after we are asleep, and even when they do, they don’t want to hurt you. They will be busy talking to the trees. If you wake up in the middle of the night, you might hear them, but it will be dark. You won’t see them.”

“What do they say to the trees?”

“They wake them up. The trees fall asleep for the winter, and if nobody wakes them up, there won’t be no spring. That’s why it’s important that we leave the giants alone and don’t bother them. We don’t know the language of the trees. Nobody does. Only the giants know. They sound kinda like pine trees in the wind. You know, squeaks and stuff like that. I heard them for the first time when I was your age. Papa told me what it was. He said that Me-maw’s daddy could understand what they were saying but that there ain’t nobody around now who still knows the language. Papa says that the maple trees wake up first. You’ll see in the morning… if they come tonight.”

The boys stayed awake as late as they could, bundled in blankets beneath their little a-frame shelter strung between trees. Several times Jimmy heard noises and asked Kimball if it was giants, but the elder cousin explained each noise as it came—an owl hooting, a deer heading to the river for a drink of water, a raccoon digging for grubs, a flying squirrel landing on the ground. He had answers for everything and Jimmy felt safe as long as he had such a woods-wise companion.

The morning was cold, and the two adventurers stayed in their blankets until the sun hit the top of the west rim. Kimball got up first and piled twigs and leaves where the fire had been the night before. A hard breath revealed orange coals beneath the grey ashes and soon a small flame emerged. Jimmy watched all this from his woolen cocoon until the fire appears to have enough heat to ward off the chill. Kimball was unwrapping a small loaf of bread when Kimball walked up the fire and leaned in, rubbing his hands together for warmth. Kimball reached into his bag and pulled out a piece of cheese wrapped in wax paper, and made two crude open-face sandwiches out of torn chunks of bread and cheese. “Breakfast?”

After warming up and eating, Jimmy followed Kimball down the narrow path until they reached the river where their little boat, wet with dew, was tied to a persimmon tree at the shore. Across the river, smoke rose from the chimney of their cabin, and though Kimball secretly wished he was sitting on the hearth with a warm bowl of porridge, he was relieved he didn’t have to sit in a cold, wet metal boat.

“Look,” said Kimball, pointing across the river at the steep hillside above the cabin.

“What?” asked Jimmy.

“The maple trees—they woke up. The giants were hear!”

Across the river, above the cabin on the steep western slope of the plateau, scattered, bright red blotches glowed here and there on an otherwise dull, gray canvas. The two young boys stared in awe at the clear proof of the existence of giants, and the first evidence of spring.

“As the giants wake up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds follow the red,” said Kimball. That’s how they know where to go. You know about the sore-eye birds, right?” Kimball asked, knowing that his cousin did not.

A shake of Jimmy’s head gave Kimball permission to tell the next part of the story.

“You remember last spring, how Papa had all those allergies—all that sneezing and blowing his nose, and how his eyes got all red and swollen and itchy?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, that is because nobody got him a feather from the sore-eye bird. Mama told me that Me-maw taught her that if you take a feather from a sore-eye bird, soak it in water, then bathe your eyes in the water, you’ll be cured of all that. Now that the giants woke up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds should be here. All we have to do is find one, and we can cure Papa of his allergies.”

Leaving Jimmy to ponder giants and magical birds, Kimball walked back to the camp and retrieved his slingshot from his bag. “I’ve been practicing all winter for this,” he said confidently.

Jimmy had spent nearly every waking moment of his first winter in the River Gorge, and had never seen his cousin’s slingshot, but he chose not to question Kimball’s assertion. Instead, he asked Kimball how they would find the sore-eye bird.

“It’s easy. We listen. Mama said that sometimes the sore-eye bird sounds like a robin with a sore throat. Other times it says chick-burr, chick-burr. We’ll find a good spot in the woods for listening, and when it calls, we’ll follow it’s voice.”

They walked further into the woods until they came to the old road. Beyond the road, the ground became steep, and Kimball decided a road would be a good place to listen, so they sat down. Jimmy looked north, Kimball looked south, and they listened.

It seemed like all the winter birds were singing that morning, and Kimball identified with authority the few he recognized. A white-throated sparrow called for Mister Peabody, a wren said teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, and a chick-a-dee said his own name over and over. There were many more birds Kimball didn’t recognized, and whenever Jimmy would ask him what they were, Jimmy would either pretend he didn’t hear him, hold up his hand to be quiet because he was listening hard at the moment, or change the subject to something that suddenly seemed very important, like wondering if skunks could climb trees or if giants were afraid of daylight.

Kimball was unsure what a robin with a sore throat sounded like, but he listened closely, and when a lot of birds were singing at once, he proclaimed, “There it is, the sore-eye bird.” Jimmy asked which one of the many songs heard was the sore-eye bird, but Kimball never seemed to hear it again. Kimball was, however, certain that the song came from the north, and he confidently led the search party in that direction.

“The sore-eye bird is bright red with black wings,” Kimball said. “Keep on the lookout.” And look, Jimmy did. He scanned the treetops, turning his head in search of every bird he heard. Being early in the spring, the leaves on the trees were tiny, so the canopy afforded good bird watching. After a few minutes of waling down the over-grown old road, Jimmy pointed to a flash of red high in the canopy. “Is that it?” he asked.

Kimball looked up to see to see the bright red bird high in a poplar tree. Jimmy smiled broadly, proud of his discovery. Kimball looked at the slingshot in his left hand, and sat down on a rock. “We’ll have to wait for it to come down. Keep your eye on it.” Kimball was trying to maintain an air of authority and confidence, but secretly he was hoping the bird would disappear. He had never shot at a bird with his slingshot, and the couple squirrels he had tried to shoot were missed by a foot or more. He looked away from the bird, leaving the responsibility for tracking it on his inexperienced young companion.

“There is goes.” said Jimmy. “Let’s go!” The sore-eye bird was on the move, flying away from the river and up the steep slope. The boys followed, clamoring over the boulders and scree that covered the hillside. The bright feathers of the sore-eye bird stood out in a forest whose young leaves were just beginning to pop out. As the boys stayed on the trail, climbing higher and higher, the sore-eye bird stayed out of reach until half-way up the slope the land leveled off onto a shelf. Ahead of them, a shear bluff would prevent them from climbing higher, but they wouldn’t have to. To their right, a spring seeped from the base of the bluff and flowed into a small pond. The sore-eye bird swooped down over the water and landed on the very top of a small elder berry bush at the edge of the water, not fifteen feet away.

Slowly, Kimball reached in his pocket and pulled out one of several small, smooth pebbles he had collected from the river. He loaded his slingshot, extended his left arm, and with his right hand pulled back the letter thong that held the rock. Looking down the stretched rubber cords, he took aim and, just as the sore-eye bird began to sing a raspy, flute-like song like a robin with a sore throat, he closed his eyes and released.

Jimmy watched as the pebble made a gentle arc towards the singing bird, and in an instant his cousin Kimball grew from questionable mentor to infallible guru.
The sore eye bird stopped singing and fell limp to the forest floor.

When Kimball opened his eyes, Jimmy was already standing over the most beautiful bird—perhaps the most beautiful animal—he had ever seen, dead on the forest floor. Kimball was shocked. Jimmy was awestruck. Both were saddened. Neither spoke.

A couple hours later they tied the boat off at the dock, unloaded their gear, and walked up to the cabin. Mama, who had seen them coming, was heating soup on the wood stove. “How was your adventure?” she asked as the boys dropped their bedrolls and approached the stove. “Did you hear the giants?”

Neither of the sullen boys acknowledged the question. Kimball reached in his bag and pulled out an odd little package. Through wax paper, the bright red and stark black of the sore-eye bird were as muted and dull as he felt inside. He didn’t understand why doing such a good thing for his Papa felt so bad.

Slowly he unwrapped the now stiff contents as his Mama looked on with furrowed brow. “What happened? Did you find him in the woods?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“It’s for Papa… for his eyes,” Kimball said slowly, handing the bird to Mama.

“Yes, but…” Mama did not finish her thought.

She took the package from her son and slowly unwrapped the contents. The sore-eye bird’s eye was closed, it’s neck was limp, and it’s head hung from a lifeless body.

You did this?” she asked softly.

Kimball looked at the floor. “For Papa,” he choked. His eyes welled with tears and he began to sob.

Jimmy, who had been looking on in silence from behind his cousin, began to cry too.

Mama took her boys, one in each arm, and held them tight. Tears began to trickle down her checks as well.

Finally, Kimball managed two weak words. “I’m sorry,” he said in a high, broken voice. The three of them sat down on the hearth, backs to the stove, Mama in the middle, arms around the two crying boys.

She could have told her boys that all they were supposed to bring back was a feather, and that it should be a gift from the bird. She could have said that, according to Me-Maw, killing a bird that provides medicine brings about the illness it cures. She could have told him that his Me-maw’s name, Olive, meant peace. There were many things she could have said, but didn’t. Instead, she sat silently with Kimball and Jimmy until all the tears were drained from their eyes, then she served soup which they ate in silence.

When they were finished eating, Kimball asked if he could clean up by himself. He took the bowls, cups and spoons out to the spring and washed them while Jimmy and Mama sat on the hearth.

“Tell me more about Me-maw,” said Jimmy.

“Well, your Me-maw was a very smart and very loved woman, Jimmy. And wise. But the two things I admired most about her were her calm spirit and her never ending thirst for knowledge. If anything ever upset her, she never showed it. And if she wasn’t helping somebody with their ailment, their injury, or their emotional problem, she was studying the plants and animals of the gorge.”

“How did she study? Did she have a teacher?”

“That is a good question, Jimmy. A lot of people wondered that. Your Me-maw spent countless days walking deep into the gorge, and sometimes climbing out of the gorge to the plateau. She never took anybody with her, and nobody knew exactly where she went, but she always came back with new herbs, roots, or recipes. Some people thought she met with an old medicine woman somewhere on the plateau who stayed behind when the native people were driven off. Other people suggested that she took magic herbs and had visions while she was on her walks.”

“What do you think, Miss Dorothy?”

The look on Jimmy’s face was serious and inquisitive. To Dorothy, her nephew looked like for the first time in the five months since he moved in with them, his focus was entirely on the moment, and not distracted by thoughts of his father. She tousled his hair that had not been cut since his arrival in the gorge and had become quite shaggy.

“I think it’s time I give you a haircut,” she said with a warm smile.

“No, tell me more about Me-maw. What do you think she was doing on those walks. Kimball told me that you have her journals and they have all of her secrets.”

“I do have her journals, and they have a lot of information about her many medicines—drawings of plants, recipes… Perhaps one day I will show them to you.”

The door opened and Kimball came back inside with a basket of clean dishes which he put away on the shelves.

“What are you boys doing this afternoon?” asked Mama.

Kimball looked at the wax paper package on the table and said, “I guess we need to do something to make it right.”

“I think that is what your Me-maw would say,” Mama responded.

Jimmy and his aunt exchanged a warm look and a smile, and Kimball wondered what it was about but didn’t ask.

“Come on, Jimmy,” said Kimball. Let’s go out to the barn and find a shovel.
Jimmy carried the shovel and Kimball carried the sore-eye bird as they walked across the yard from the barn.

“Where are we gonna bury him?” asked Jimmy.

“I don’t know. I think he should be somewhere where he can see the sunrise and look across the river at the ridge where he lived.”

Just below the redbud tree at the northeast corner of the property, about ten feet fro, the river bank, Kimball stopped. “Right here,” he said matter-of-factly. “This is the right place.”

Jimmy stuck the point of the shovel into the soil, and raised a foot to plunge it into the earth, but Kimball stopped him. “I need to do this,” he said.

He took the handle of the shovel with his left and hand and reached toward Jimmy with his right, gently handing over the little red corpse. The soil by the river was rich and soft and Kimball had an appropriate hole dug with only five or six easy shovelfuls. Jimmy then handed him the still-wrapped bird, and Kimball carefully opened the paper and lifted it out. “I guess we’ll have to find a feather for Papa’s eyes somewhere else,” he said somberly.

“Yeah, I guess we will,” responded Kimball. “He sure is pretty, ain’t he?”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

To the bird, Kimball said simply, “I’m sorry,” then knelt down and placed it in the bottom of an eighteen-inch-deep hole, sprinkled some dirt over it, and stood back up. “Should we say something?” he asked.

“Only if you want to. I think what you feel is more important than what you say. I think that might be what Me-maw would say.”

“Yeah, maybe so.”

Kimball took the shovel he had stuck in the ground next to the hole and scooped too three shovelfuls of dirt on top of the sore-eye bird.

“Wait,” said Jimmy.

“What?”

“I’ll be right back.”

Jimmy ran over to the porcupine tree and rustled around in the leaves, kicking them aside, then getting onto all fours and rummaging around through the thick litter. After a couple minutes he found what he was looking for and ran back to where Kimball was waiting with the shovel.

In his hand was a chestnut. “It’s been on the ground since last fall. Ya think it will still grow?”

“I guess so.”

Jimmy wiped the nut off on his pants until it shone like brand new and knelt down to place it in the dirt atop the bird.

Standing back up, he said “Okay,” and with that Kimball shoveled the rest of the dirt over the nut.

“I think we should give it some water,” said Jimmy.

Kimball said okay, and they ran back to the barn where they put away the shovel and retrieved a small pail which they filled from the river and slowly poured over the freshly mounded grave. The soil muddied and sunk and the boys watched as it slowly subsided.

“Want to go back over to the ridge and look for a feather?” Jimmy asked, trying to be helpful.

“Naw, I think we should wait. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”

A Downy Visitor

Pileated, red-bellied, and yellow-bellied woodpeckers all come regularly for the suet, but the little downies are nearly omnipresent at the feeding station. Male and female sometimes come together, other times they are loners but, odds are, if you look out the kitchen window during daylight hours, one of them will be there. The female is currently understandably skittish after visiting me in the house early in the week, requiring capture to find her way back out.

The male, however, is quite comfortable with me and afforded a few nice photographs this afternoon. With the temperatures dropping tonight and last night’s rain not affecting the drought conditions, I expect the feeding and watering stations to stay busy, and I will be around with the camera, so stay tuned.

Here are the photos from today along with red-bellied woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker visiting the persimmons in the past couple weeks. Enjoy!

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Male on Branch.jpg

Persimmon Tree-2.jpg

Persimmonsucker.jpg

 

One of Her and Eleven of Us

As happy as I was to have hiking guides and transportation for my last day on the island, I was a bit disappointed to see a dog in the car when they arrived to pick me up. I love dogs—especially labs—but my main goal on Kodiak (and the main reason I extended my trip two days) was the opportunity to see more brown bears. Earlier in the week, I had seen a sow with two cubs, but at such a distance that even through binoculars they were little more than specks. Now, with a retriever along, I couldn’t imagine getting close enough to a bear for a decent look, much less a photograph. But I wasn’t going to let what I perceived as decreased odds prevent me from enjoying a hike on Kodiak.

Coming on the heels of several days of heavy rain, this second day in a row of clearing skies made for near perfect October hiking weather. The trail began in what is most accurately described as a swamp. Emerging from the swamp, it followed—and often shared—the path of a steep drainage. Our destination was a small natural lake with views across the bay. Borrowed Xtratuf boots proved to be best friends when I more than once sank nearly a foot into the muck as we criss-crossed in and out of the shallow creek. Throughout the climb, the retriever took great delight in flushing, chasing, but never catching snowshoe hares through a seemingly impenetrable tangle on the slopes up either side of the draw. Watching the giant rabbit appearing thirty yards ahead of the dog, I couldn’t help but think of br’er rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in the alder patch!” Though only a mile-and-a-half, the trek was strenuous enough at times to work the lungs and make arrival at the picturesque Heitman Lake feel earned.

heitman-lake

Following a brief rest and lakeside snack, we decided to hike to the upper end of the basin and summit a rocky outcropping my hosts assured would provide the best views. Pausing to take some photos before climbing the peak, I couldn’t imagine the perspective from the peak to be any more spectacular than where we were. The lake formed a wavy-edged trapezoid, tapering away from us toward Broad Point—a rough and rocky spit of land separating Middle and Kalsin Bays. Beyond the point, the much larger Chinak Bay reached towards the edge of the earth where it merged with a dramatically layered, cloud-filled sky. The nearest layer of clouds, a patchy mix of cottony cumulus, was mirrored in the calm lake at our feet.

As we photographed the scene, distant voices from over my left shoulder caught my attention. I turned to look across a narrow, shallow valley expecting to see some hikers, but the voices were carrying from farther up the trail than I could see. Turning back towards the lake, movement across the valley caught my eye. A single brown bear was following the far ridge. Our plans to summit the peak changed.

big-brown-bear-7

Our first order of business was to corral the dog, which was easy to do with the exceptionally well-behaved lab. Second order of business was to move a little closer and find a good vantage point for photographs.

We had not been watching the bruin long when the source of the voices appeared. A pair of hunters, accompanied by a dog and packing out a deer, were heading our way, paralleling the path of the bear. They were a safe distance behind the bear and would soon meet up with us on the trail. As the hunters reached us, we heard a second set of voices coming from the opposite direction, and a young couple with their dog appeared on the trail ahead. Soon there were eleven of us—seven Homo sapiens sapiens, three Canis lupus familiaris, and one very dead Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis which we figured must smell mighty good to one quite large Ursus arctos middendorffi.

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An easy decision was made to stick together, and we followed the bear from behind as she browsed, sniffed, ambled and shat her way along the valley, choosing a perfect route and exhibiting great behavior for photo opportunities. She crested the low ridge for stunning profiles, sat for a while to survey the bay, and occasionally looked over her shoulder at the twenty-six legged beast following her. When she stood on hind legs for dramatic effect, she looked like a giant teddy bear—dark brown legs contrasting a much lighter brown body and head. From a distance she looked darn near cuddly until I raised the binoculars to see the three-plus inch claws curving out from the ends of her giant paws. Always aware, she never showed any concern and never posed any threat to us. The dogs were well-enough behaved, and the couple who had been hiking in the other direction decided to cut their hike short and walk out in the comfort and safety of numbers.

Big Brown Bear.jpg

We were an interesting lot, to say the least. The hunting party was comprised of a young novice, and a not much older mentor who mostly talked about how he would come back and “drop” that sow or “stick” her. He was confident that he had seen this same bear the year before and it was only a matter of time before he skinned her in an act of great masculinity. On the other end of the spectrum, the young couple was not comfortable in such close proximity to a great Kodiak bear and was more than relieved to have found us before the bear found them. As for our party, I think we were all simply in awe of such an animal and honored to have the experience. For my companions who live on the island and work for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, I suppose hiking alongside such a magnificent creature might be routine, even old hat. For me, however, it was an unforgettable experience. It was not my first big bear, but it was the closest I have been to one that big, and I do believe it might have been the most beautiful bear I have ever come across. (Although the honey-colored little grizzly I saw on the Russian River in 2015 certainly comes close.)

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We stayed with the bear until she… I should pause here to say that I was not able to identify the bear as a female. I say “she” throughout this writing only because that is what the hunter said. When I researched the difference between male and female grizzlies, I was led to think this might be a male, but I don’t know. Perhaps a reader with more experience and knowledge can weigh in with a definitive answer. As I was saying… We stayed with the bear until (she) crossed the ridge in front of us, passed through the top of the drainage we just hiked, and disappeared over the other side.

Our hike back down was a bit of a circus. Out of harms way, the dogs were let loose and they took full advantage of their freedom—running, playing chase, nearly knocking people off their feet more than once. They had earned it, and nobody complained.

Next time I visit Kodiak, I hope to return to the Heitman Lake trail. Next time I want to continue beyond where we turned back. According to Alaska.org, it is a strenuous ten mile round trip beyond Heitman Lake to Raymond Peak and Heitman Mountain. And and if they are interested, I would love for my hiking companions—all three of them—to join me for the trek!

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Birding by Ear in Anchorage

I am downstairs, sitting in the rocking chair next to the hearth where the wood stove used to be. It is early morning. I am thinking about the next three weeks of travel, and writing. To my left is a small table. Beyond the table, a sliding glass door leads to a tiny patio. The world outside is dark and quiet. I stop writing when I hear, from the direction of the door, a remarkably loud birdsong. The voice is unmistakable—an American robin. Then it sings again. On the second verse I realize how unusually raspy it sounds and begin to question my quick identification. Perhaps it isn’t a robin at all. Perhaps there is a resident Alaskan songbird whose call is similar to a robin but rougher, harsher. Some people describe the scarlet tanager’s song as “a robin with a sore throat,” but I don’t think I would confuse a tanager with a robin. I hear both birds often enough back home on the farm to have a good grasp of their distinctions, plus Alaska is a long way from scarlet tanager range.

Leaving journal and pen on the table, I walk to the door. It is still dark out on this Anchorage morning, but the lights in the condominium parking lot provide more than ample glow to see a bird, were one perched on the fence. I scan the patio, the fence, and parking lot beyond. There is no bird in sight, everything is quiet, and I don’t hear the bird again.

Returned to my seat, I keep thinking about that voice. I listen to the morning silence, hoping it will sing again, and wondering. Perhaps it wasn’t a robin… I retrieve my computer from the bedroom upstairs and search for fall Alaska songbirds. There is nothing to be found online that fits the description other than robin, but with no more songs I can’t be sure. I wonder why it stopped singing so soon after it began. Was the raspiness due to a sore throat? A sore throat would make me stop singing. Or did the resident cat rear its head, cutting short the morning hymns? 

I walk back to the door to have another look. Overhead, I hear the ticking of a clock and look up to mark the time. My host Jerry knows his birds, and if I describe the song and the approximate time I heard it, he will identify it. Directly above the door, the clock is a large, round, white analog model, bearing the familiar logo of the National Audubon Society. Representing each hour is a different common North American bird. One o’clock is the great horned owl, 2:00 — northern mockingbird, 3:00 — black-capped chickadee, 4:00 — northern cardinal… It is now a quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes ago… at seven o’clock… the clock struck… the American robin.

I am still chuckling at my morning encounter with the not-quite-right roborobin when Jerry comes down the steps. Soon, he is laughing with me. We have a cup of coffee, and discuss plans for the day. Jerry reads the paper while I finish my writing. Before long, the digitally reproduced, unusually loud, raspy voice of a song sparrow brings another chuckle and reminds us it is time for breakfast.

As we walk out to the car, I am pretty certain I hear a real live robin across the parking lot. Jerry does not hear it, but confirms that some robins do overwinter in Anchorage, though most migrate south, and that fall would be an odd time to hear them singing. I can tell he doesn’t believe I heard what I think I heard, but I am convinced. Everybody needs a friend, and I suspect there must be one robin in Anchorage who recognizes the lone, raspy voice in Jerry’s condominium. There must be one robin willing to sing out of season, offering friendship to an unseen, two-dimensional bird on a cool, dark Alaska morning. Or, maybe an unseen voice inside my head is hard at work helping me avoid being the only one — bird or birder — to be duped by a singing clock.

Jeremiah

These lyrics came to me one evening while driving the roads on Kodiak Island and I thought maybe a few folks might appreciate them. Feel free to comment–especially if you are a poet or a songwriter. I fancy myself neither, so you won’t hurt my feelings. Stay tuned for some slightly more serious (and hopefully better) writing inspired by my Alaska trip over the next few days…

Jeremiah

There’s a man up near the tree line
Named for a prophet in a book
He’s hiding from his brothers
And the paths that they all took

His clothes are rags and colored
And his feet are bare and bent
He doesn’t own pajamas
Doesn’t know the president

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He is dark and he is clean
Spends 90 dollars on his soap
But don’t ask about the mailbox
He just don’t get that joke

And he builds a lot of fires
Burning pallets, logs and bricks
If you tell him that it’s summertime
He says the smoke is thick

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

His best friend is a raven
Calls her Jezebel
Collects her fallen feathers
For a potion or a spell

He wears a tiny padlock
On a bracelet on his wrist
It is locked for all eternity
There is no key for it

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

Up there on the mountain
He builds a wooden boat
He grows a lot of radishes
With no shovel or rope

His frame is thin and solid
his muscles taut and long
He doesn’t have a birthday
Doesn’t sing a favorite song

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He never makes a footprint
On the mossy, craggy trail
But the goshawk and the owl
Follow closely on his tail

He sometimes picks a mushroom
From a tree beside the brook
Though his whole world is the forest
That is all he ever took

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He might not live forever
But he will not die alone
The magpies and the grizzlies
Will know when he is gone

Until then he will wander
Out of sight from all the town
’til within an ancient mossy stump
He lays his body down

Jeremiah
His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin
Yeah he lives up on the mountain
Where his air is fresh and thin

October Treasures

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Gray Catbird and Rose-breasted Grosbeak Sharing a Limb

On any given day there are many reasons to walk the farm—discoveries to be made, wildlife to encounter. This time of year, I like to see what is blooming, hear who is singing or fluttering by, check for tracks around the pond. Every day there is a chance for newly arriving, or passing through migrants. The rose-breasted grosbeaks have been around for a few weeks now, hummingbirds are still defensive around the feeders, a black and white warbler stopped in a couple days ago, and a half dozen house finches have joined the goldfinches at the feeder. Gulf fritillaries are finding fall flowers, and a spectacular of array of yellow asters covers the field along with goldenrod. Persimmons and apples are ripe in the trees, and gift me with their delicacy on nearly every walk, while black walnuts and pecans are not ready for dropping just yet.

gulf-fritillary
Gulf Fritillary Enjoying the Flower Garden

Yesterday evening, while eating an apple I had just picked en route to the mailbox, I came across a pile of rain-eroded scat at the edge of the driveway. I put on my glasses and knelt down to have a closer look to find that I was not the only one enjoying seasonal fruit these days. Apparently a resident raccoon has been feasting as well—evidenced by the dozen or more persimmon seeds in his excrement—a treasure!
After depositing my letter, I went to the kitchen for a ziplock bag and a paper towel, then headed back to the driveway to collect my newfound seeds. The refrigerator already has several of these bags, and there will be more before the season ends. Every summer I search out native fruit-bearing trees—persimmon and pawpaw—and relish in their sweet offerings. Every year I say to myself, this is the year. This year, I will save these seeds. This year I will plant trees. This year.

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Persimmon Seeds in Raccoon Scat

 

Recently, a friend with a few wooded acres south of here granted me permission to grow some trees on his property. The seeds in my refrigerator are experiencing a simulated winter in preparation for planting there. The cold will scarify the seeds, enabling them to germinate. For a minimum of forty days they will chill, hopefully emerging ready to sprout. Some seeds, like many prairie plants, or the lodgepole pines of Yellowstone, are scarified through wildfires. Others, like the cedar trees that sprout along so many fence rows are prepared for germination in the digestive tracts of birds. Pawpaws and Persimmons like the cold.
Chickadees bring a smile to my face with their chatter, but remain out of sight in the canopy as I count twenty-seven shiny brown flat seeds in the scat, each a little smaller in diameter than a dime. One by one, I pick the seeds out of their crumbling encasement and place them on the paper towel. Then I think about the scat and realize it would be a waste to leave that rich fertilizer on the driveway. I gather it as well, carefully picking every last crumble out of the gravel. I fold the towel, insert it in the bag, and label it: “persimmon in raccoon scat 9/26.” Before refrigerating it, I will sprinkle a little water in the bag to keep it moist and seal it shut. Nothing says Autumn like a back of raccoon crap in your refrigerator!
When I am ready to plant my seeds I will record the date they were collected, the time they were refrigerated, and whether or not they were “raccooned.” By keeping those records, I will learn what processing results in the highest rate of germination. If “raccooned” seeds prove more successful than the seeds only refrigerated, I will have more work on my hands next year, but I don’t mind. Searching the woods for raccoon scat sounds like a perfectly lovely October activity to me!
For now, though, I will pick another apple and continue my rounds to see what other autumn treasures reveal themselves.

 

Hull Go!

Over the next few weeks, I plan on posting some works in progress from my Chestnut Ridge story. The story is one that has taken a very different shape from what I originally planned–morphing from a stage show to the beginning of a novel. This slice is the beginning work on a chapter with the working title “Hull Go.” Please let me know what you think, ask questions, critique. Thanks!

Hull Go!

“Hull go!”

Jimmy looked at Tommy, waiting for him finish whatever he was yelling at him. “Hull go,” didn’t make any sense, and he didn’t know how to respond to the older boy holding his closed hands in front of him like he had either just caught a frog he didn’t want to escape, or he was hiding something.

The two boys looked like they could be brothers—both had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes but Tommy’s hair was shaggy, unlike the close cut worn by his younger cousin. The older boy was about three inches taller and a little broader in the shoulders than the younger, but the real difference between the two was in their skin. Tommy’s hand were calloused and rough, his feet toughened from summers running barefoot around the cabin and in the woods of the River Gorge. On his right forearm was a long, jagged scar. Without a shirt, Tommy’s deeply tanned arms, neck, and face contrasted his pale torso.

By comparison, Jimmy was soft. And he viewed his wilder cousin with some envy, and respect.

“Hull go!” Tommy yelled again, this time a little slower and with more emphasis on both words.

When he saw his younger cousin’s lips begin to quiver, he opened his hands to reveal the treasure inside. Before him were four shiny brown nuts, about the size of an average striker marble and roughly onion shaped, but flat on one side.

“When I say, hull go, you’re supposed to guess how many nuts I have in my hand. If you get it right, you get the nuts. That’s how the game works. “Here, you can have them this time,” he offered.

Jimmy opened his hands and Tommy dropped the nuts into his little palms. One of them tumbled over his fingers, onto the ground, and he quickly knelt to pick it up, looking nervously at Tommy, afraid he might have done something wrong.

“Now you try it,” Tommy said, more gently than before. “Hide some nuts in your hand and when you say, ‘Hull go,’ I’ll try to guess how many you have.”

As Jimmy turned around and fumbled with the nuts, Tommy thought about the serious talk his parents had with him about the new member of their family. “Everything will be new for him here,” Mama had said to him, “and as the older cousin it is up to you to be extra nice to him, to teach him what you know. He’s more than a cousin now. He’s your brother. You have a big responsibility.”

Tommy was excited about having a little brother, and felt mature in his new role.

“Hull go!” Jimmy yelled excitedly as he wheeled back around, hands clenched tightly in front of him.

Tommy looked down at Jimmy’s hands and gave his best thoughtful look before offering, “Three?”

“Nope. Guess again,” said Jimmy with a giggle, clearly pleased that he had fooled his cousin.

“No guessing again. That’s not how the game works. Show me how many you have.”

Jimmy opened his hands to reveal one lone nut, then reached in his pocket to retrieve the other three.

“The rule of the game is that if I guess wrong, I have to give you the difference between how many I guessed and how many you have. Since I guessed three, and you only have one, I have to give you two more.

Jimmy’s smile broadened as he realized he had just won a game, even though he really didn’t understand rules, or the point, and even though and his victory was pure luck.

Tommy knelt down and very gingerly picked up an oddly-shaped, somewhat bulbous, spiky brown and green ball, about the size of his fist. They covered the ground beneath the giant tree that dominated the yard just upstream from the cabin. Some were closed up tight, others had slight openings. Even more were laid wide open, evenly slit into four lobes connected in the middle. On the inside, they were a light cream color and looked to Jimmy like heavy dogwood petals—soft and inviting compared to the protective outer shell that more resembled a cactus. Looking at the spiked exterior, he made a mental note to never step on one, and he wondered what other dangers he would encounter in his new and exotic world.

Tommy flipped over the one he had collected, and carefully pried it open to reveal three shiny nuts just like the ones in Jimmy’s hand. He turned it over, and the nuts dropped onto the ground. He picked two of them up and added them to the growing treasure in Jimmy’s hand.

“Your turn!”

“Hull go!”

“I’d say you have… four.”

“Nope! I win again!”

For twenty minutes they called numbers, and traded nuts back and forth. Eventually, when he had a big pile of nuts on the ground in front of him, Jimmy asked the question he had been thinking the whole time. “What are they?”

“Porcupine nuts. From the porcupine tree,” said Tommy, looking up at the canopy.

Jimmy’s eyes widened as he looked first at the giant tree, then at the growing pile of nuts at his feet. He had heard of porcupines, but he had no idea they grew on trees.

“When will they hatch?” he asked excitedly.

“They don’t hatch. You eat them!”

Jimmy’s brow furrowed as he pondered what he was just told.

“You eat porcupines?”

“They aren’t porcupines. They’re the nuts from the porcupine tree.”

“Where are the porcupines.”

“There ain’t no porcupines. Just nuts.”

“Oh.”

Jimmy didn’t understand, but he couldn’t think of the right question to help him figure it out, so he just listened.

“I heard Papa talking with sheriff Saylor. He says there won’t be no porcupine nuts much longer, cause of a fungus.”

“A what?”

“A fungus. The Sheriff says its from China and it’s gonna kill all the porcupine trees. He said that the ones up north was already dead, and it was just a matter of time before it comes here. Papa don’t know what he’s gonna do when them trees is gone.”

Jimmy picked up one of the nuts and stared at it intently for a moment, then put it in his pocket with a determined look, as if by putting it there he was somehow protecting it from whatever that thing is that China was sending after it.

A voice called out from the cabin and the boys turned around to see Tommy’s Mama standing just outside the door. “Come on in for supper, boys!”

The two boys stuffed their pockets full of nuts and ran to towards the cabin. Papa was already seated at the table when they came inside. Tommy turned out his pockets, dumping the nuts into a basket by the door. Jimmy did the same, leaving one nut tucked away in his right pocket.

“You boys been playing Hull Go?” Papa asked.

“Tommy taught me,” said Jimmy. “I won!”

“Is that right…” Papa said. “Well you better keep an eye on that Tommy. You win a few games against him and get comfortable, then he turns around and wins all your nuts before you know what hit you.”

Jimmy looked suspiciously at his smiling cousin as they climbed into chairs at the small wooden table in the room that served as kitchen, living room, and dining room.

“We can roast some of those chestnuts after supper,” said Papa. “You’ve never had a roasted chestnut, have you, Jimmy.”

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders timidly.

“He don’t know what chestnuts are,” offered Tommy.

“Ah,” said Papa. “Porcupine nuts,” he clarified. “We’ll roast porcupine nuts, Jimmy, and you’re gonna love them.”

Jimmy was realizing that he had a lot to learn about chestnuts, about the river, and about life in The Gorge in general, but he was there to stay. He would have plenty of time to learn.

“Tomorrow, we’ll cross the river, and gather chest… uh, porcupine nuts up on Chestnut Ridge. That’s where the big trees are. Have you ever been in a boat, Jimmy?”

Jimmy shook his head.

“Well tomorrow will be another first for you, then. Just wait ’til you see the trees up there. Some of those trees are so tall you can’t see the top of them, and they are loaded with nuts.”

“Maybe, they are,” said Tommy. “If the fungus ain’t got them yet.”

“Don’t talk like that!” said Papa with a very serious tone.

From the stove, Mama pitched in. “Now Tommy, your Papa said that the blight hasn’t reached Chestnut Ridge and that it might not. We will remain hopeful.”

“But I heard you talking to Sheriff Saylor…”

“Never you mind what Sheriff Saylor said. The blight ain’t here yet, and until it comes… if it comes,” Papa corrected himself, “If it comes, well, we’ll deal with it when it does.”

“But what about China…?”

“You heard your Papa,” Mama said. “And you have more important things to worry about, like eating this pigeon.” Mama brought a cast iron dutch oven from the stove and set it on a mat in the middle of the small table, then took off the lid. Thick steam curled around the lid as she pulled it away, and with it, the rich smell of pigeon breast and potatoes escaped from the big black pot.

As they dug into their meal, the boys told Mama and Papa all about their day exploring the woods behind the cabin. Jimmy tried to remember all the things he had learned, Tommy helping him out alone the way. He recollected that poison ivy had three leaves and some red in the middle, and the vine was hairy.

“Tommy showed me where the raccoons live in the oak tree and where the older berries grow down by the river, but there ain’t none left this year. We’ll have to wait ’til next summer, if the birds don’t get them first.”

“Elderberries,” Tommy corrected gently, trying not to laugh and looking at his Papa for approval.

“I mean Elderberries.”

“And I showed him where the spring comes out of the rock, where Uncle Buddy had his still before he got arrested.”

“He doesn’t need to learn about everything,” Mama chimed.

“That’s okay,” said Papa. “Out here in The Gorge, Jimmy, people have to find ways to make a living however they can, and sometimes that means doing things that the law doesn’t approve of. Your Uncle Buddy was just finding his way.

“My Papa told me about him,” said Jimmy. “He told me that Uncle Buddy didn’t deserve to be in jail. He said his liquor wasn’t good enough to get arrested for and that if he had made the good stuff and sold it to the white folks he wouldn’t have been arrested. Papa said that he only got in trouble cause he was selling to the negroes. That’s what Papa said.”

Jimmy was surprised to hear himself saying so much, and even as he spoke he knew he should be quiet, that this was not a story he should be telling, even if he didn’t know just why.

“Well, your Papa was probably right about that but, deserve it or not, that’s where he ended up, and we’re gonna make sure we don’t end up there with him. That’s why tomorrow we’re gonna fill that boat up with porcupine nuts and after we cure them, we’ll take them to town and sell them at the curb market. The law don’t mind us selling porcupine nuts.”

After supper, Mama brought out what Tommy had been careful not to tell his cousin. For Jimmy’s first night in The Gorge, Mama surprised him with the first apple pie of the season, and all four of them had generous slices.

The boys loaded up the dishes in a basket and walked back to the now infamous spring where first they washed up the plates, cups, forks and knives, then they washed themselves. By the time they finished, it was dusk and back at the cabin they climbed up the ladder to the small loft on the south end of the cabin.

In town Jimmy had a proper spring mattress all to himself, but in the gorge he shared a dense matt with his cousin, but he was comforted to not be sleeping alone that night.

“Do you miss your Papa?” Tommy whispered in the dark. “Mama said I should bring up your Papa, but I figure you might want to talk about it. You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I miss him. But not Miss Caroline. She wasn’t my mama, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why you came here to live with us.”

“I’m glad I’m here, but I miss my Papa.”

“My Papa says he’s your Papa, too now, but that you don’t have to call him that if you don’t want to. He understands.”

Jimmy didn’t say anything more, but he was glad to have another Papa. After the funeral, Miss Caroline had told him that it would be okay to call his uncle, Papa, that his own Papa would understand. But Jimmy wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Right now, all he wanted was sleep.

Jimmy stood at the plate and looked out at the field. The sun was bright overhead and he pulled his hat down to shade his eyes. On the mound, his Papa stood wearing a gray uniform with the number 34 in red on his chest. Beyond the diamond an outfielder, too far away to see his face, stood beneath a giant tree. The tree’s limbs were loaded with spiky green balls that weren’t quite round and were stitched together with red laces. The outfielder picked a ball from the tree and threw it to his Papa who caught the ball and stood for a minute looking at in his glove before leaning forward and staring intently at the catcher. He shook his head once, then shook it again, then nodded. Then he picked up the strange ball, wound up, and hurled it towards him. The ball corkscrewed through the air in slow motion. It was headed straight towards the middle of the plate waist high, but Jimmy’s arms felt as though they were in wet cement. He couldn’t swing the bat, and as the ball reached the plate, it opened up into a white flower, spinning like a pinwheel that gradually slowed and floated to the ground between his feet. From the middle of the flower, three nuts spiraled out over the plate.

“Strike one, strike two, strike three… Hull Go! You’re out!” Jimmy turned to look at the umpire who had just called him out on one pitch. A porcupine dressed in black and white striped pajamas looked over the catcher’s shoulder. The catcher opened his glove and three tiny brown porcupines crawled out of the glove, up the catcher’s arm, and down his back. The umpire knelt down and opened a pouch in the front of his pajamas. The tiny porcupines jumped in. The porcupine catcher pulled off the pajamas and left them piled on the plate, then scurried across the diamond and out to the tree. He climbed up the trunk until he came to a large round hole where an old limb had broken off. He disappeared into the hole.

Jimmy looked around. The sun was gone and a quarter moon dimly lit an empty field. He was the only one there. He picked up the striped pajamas from the plate and put them on. From somewhere up in the tree, a whippoorwill called out its own name.

He searched for the bird in the canopy, but the song seemed to come from everywhere at once. He didn’t know where to look. When the bird stopped calling, the baseball field was gone and he was standing in the middle of a dense forest in his striped pajamas. There was just enough moonlight coming through the trees for him to find his way and he started walking, but the ground was littered with the spiked hulls of porcupine eggs that pierced his bare feet. He sat down and leaded against a tree and began to cry. A hairy vine growing up the tree was soft against his face, and he nuzzled against it and closed his eyes hoping sleep would deliver a different set of circumstances, but he could not sleep. All he could do was cry.

Yellow Skies and Silver Rainbows

Through dense, steep forest the gravel road climbs and winds for two miles before peaking and descending slowly into the gorge. In total, the drive is five slow miles. I rarely see other people on this road, and I like it that way. Today, I am the only one.

Halfway to my destination, a rat snake stretches across the road. Cloud cover denies her the heat she desires and I worry for her safety here should another car come along. I slip my hand under her cool belly and she curls into a ball, allowing me to gently lift her without protest. She never even flicks her tongue, and I consider putting her in my shirt to warm her, but realize the futility of such a gesture.  Instead, I place her at the edge of the forest in the direction she is traveling, and head on my way.

 

Rat Snake CLump
Safely Off the Road.

The sky is alive and fluttering yellow when I reach the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Tigers in the sky tell me it will be a good day on the river, and the clouds open enough to dapple the streamside parking area with agreeing sunlight.

After donning waders I make a sandwich, sit down on a log, and absorb the scene. Sitting at the edge of wilderness and looking in is, in equal measure, both stilling and exciting. I suspect the chance of seeing a black bear is as high as or higher than the chance of seeing a person up here, and that is all I need to know to feel at home and alive.

As I dine on smoked salmon and avocado, a bird I cannot identify sings from across the river: The tree, tree. Love it, love it! it seems to sing. I want to find this little one who praises the forest, to meet the one who shares my sentiment, but today is about fishing. Binoculars and big camera will stay in the truck; only the point-and-shoot will accompany me up river.

 

Sandwich
Smoked Salmon And Avacado Sandwiches Are Always Better Streamside!

The trail is nearly choked with dog hobble. A narrow footpath is all that remains of this designated horse trail. Trails left unmaintained are not long for a wilderness world such as this, but I, being neither horse nor rider, do not mind the encroachment. Knowing that soon I will leave this trail for the river, I carefully direct my seven-foot-nine-inch fly rod through the hobble and continue on.

Soon I find a navigable path to the river, and slip through a tangle of rhododendron. Boot deep in the water, I strip line from my reel and assess the casting situation. Along with the rhododendron and dog hobble, alders hang their limbs close overhead. Presenting a fly on this little river will not be easy, and I find myself kneeling in the water to flip a dry fly to a riffle a few feet upstream.

My second cast hits its mark and the fly dances down the far side of the current until it meets the silver flash of a rainbow trout and disappears. My reaction is too slow and I pop the fly out of the water and into the waiting arms of an alder. Silently, I implore the tree to be kind to me, and it releases my lure without struggle—a gesture I do not take lightly. Must remember to be nice to the trees, I think.

Easing upstream, I drop a fly at the top of the riffle where it disappears immediately. Unlike the first one, I feel the tug of this trout for an instant, but only an instant. It is the fourth or fifth fish to be fooled that finally makes it to my hand—a tiny brook trout, beautifully adorned with orange spots and speckled dorsal fin. This is what lures me to the wilderness!

Brown
Brook Trout!

Despite the name of the trailhead, I am fishing the upper Bald River. Two miles upstream, Brookshire Creek is an aptly named brook trout haven. Introduced brown and rainbow trout took over these waters after brookies were lost during the heyday of over-logging our southern mountains. Today, a fifteen-foot waterfall protects the reintroduced natives from those encroaching interlopers. I consider hiking above the falls where these little guys should be abundant, but days are short in mountain gorges, and one day is all I have. A two-mile hike would only cut into fishing time, so I stay on the Bald with hope there will be more brook trout down here among the dominant carpetbagging rainbows.

The yellow that filled the sky on my arrival now swirls around me as I creep up the river. Just ahead, on a bare spot atop an otherwise moss-covered boulder, several tiger swallowtails have gathered, and I ease their way to see what all the fuss is about. Not being much of a scatologist I can’t say for sure, but I think the yellow sky was drawn to earth by a pile of otter feces—an interesting juxtaposition to be sure. I have never seen an otter on the upper Bald, but a reliable source has assured me they are a few water miles away on the North and Tellico Rivers, so it is not unlikely. Then again, this is a very small river for an otter, and it could be raccoon scat. Either way, the tigers love it and I stop for a couple photos before they return to coloring the sky.

 

Tiger Swallowtail on Poop
Tiger Swallowtails Gather Around Scat

It takes more than four hours to fish a mile of the river, and the fish never stop taking my fly. The afternoon is filled with one rainbow after another—most of them measuring four to six inches. Occasionally, deeper water nets me a ten inch beauty—small by many standards, but no slacker in this little water, and more than enough trout to delight me. That first trout of the day proves to be my only brook trout, but I am not disappointed as I secure my fly and reel in my line.

Rainbow
One Of The Nicer Rainbow Trout I Landed On The Upper Bald River

Back on the dog hobbled trail, I hear the same song I heard at the trailhead, this time preceded and followed by some attention-getting chips. Hey! Hey! Hey! The tree, tree. Love it, love it! Hey! Hey! Hey! Twelve feet off the trail, a little bird bobs and turns, and bobs and turns. His tail seems to pull his whole body down and back up as it drops and lifts. A strong white eyestripe couples with the behavior to allow for quick identification. The Louisiana waterthrush is a delight to behold in any riparian zone, but like all other experiences, it is even better in wilderness.

Doghobble Trail
The Trail Disappears Into Dog Hobble

I enjoy the company of the waterthrush until he moves on, and I do the same. My attention now piqued, I scan the trees and listen closely as I walk. A few songs in the canopy are left unidentified, but one bird drops down for a good look—a black-throated blue warbler says hello just as the end of the trail comes into view.

The warbler does not stay long, and I look down to negotiate a wet spot in the trail. At my feet the sky is beautifully reflected in a pool. Beneath the surface, hundreds of tadpoles are in a race against the weather. With no rain in the immediate forecast, I hope these little guys grow legs before their home grows dry!

 

Tdpole reflection
Earth Meets Sky On The Brookshire Creek Trail

Not quite ready to end the day, I drop a fly in the final few yards of river left between the truck and me, and find the day ending the way it began—with a silver flash and an empty hook. Again, I am not disappointed. The land of yellow skies and silver rainbows has been generous today. Next time I will go the extra mile to find out if the benevolence of the Bald River rainbows will be shared by the brook trout of Brookshire Creek. Until then, I can only hope for more yellow skies!

Note: I refer to the Upper Bald as “wilderness,” as it is managed as such by the National Forest Service, but legally it does not have that status yet. The Tennessee Wilderness Act, cosponsored by Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker would change that designation and protect this magical place in perpetuity. Visit http://www.tnwild.org or email me at jim@wildsouth.org to find out how you can help!

 

Warbling In The Clouds

It is eight o’clock in the morning and my day has peaked. It will not get any better than it is right now. How could it?

After staying up late chatting with a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) that wandered into my living room last night, I did not get up until seven this morning—later than I prefer this time of year when the days are lengthening. I donned pants and slippers and walked to the south porch to greet the morning. After pulling third shift without a break, the clouds were enjoying a well-earned rest, lying in the cool grass of the meadow before me. Clouds do that here. When they are tired, they settle down on top of the mountain until, recharged, they lift back up and go on their way. I am fortunate to live in such a place. This morning, I am particularly fortunate for, through the cloud, I hear a birdsong I do not recognize.

My life with birdsongs is like the card game Concentration. There are many familiar birdsong cards, but until I turn them over, I am rarely sure which bird is on the other side. The regulars I recognize. Even if I am unsure of their match, I hear a song, and know its card is in my deck. The song I hear this morning is not one I have been hearing on the farm of late. It is not in my deck, and I am excited. I step back into the house for camera, binoculars, and proper shoes for playing bird concentration.

Back outside, the voice sounds even closer than before, and soon I have it pinpointed near the crown of a holly—a tall tree with dense foliage. My monopod, with camera attached, leans against my shoulder as I direct binoculars towards the sound. All I see is a soup of bright, shiny, spiky green, but I know he is in there somewhere and I keep looking. I am south of the tree. To the north and west, the holly merges with pear trees that are both dark and dense. There is no good angle on that side. I have half the tree to work with and slip around to the east where I see something move. I re-position. Back and forth between binoculars, camera, and naked eye, moving right and left, I listen, and look, and listen, and look.

A flash of yellow, black, white confirms my suspicion that the song is from a warbler. The bird disappears for a moment, then hops towards the light. I raise binoculars, and he moves quickly out of sight. However fleeting, my visual contact was enough. Magnolia warbler. A handsome devil, he sports thin white eyeliner to match his thick white wing bar. A smart black neckerchief is set off by bold yellow throat and breast that is defined by broken black longitudinal stripes on either side. A gray cap completes his ensemble and proves he is a gentleman ready for the ball. I want a better look!

Cloudy morning in holly.jpg
A Handsome Warbler

Along with many warbler species, magnolias are merely passing through on their way from their wintering grounds in Central America to breeding grounds in Canada. Many seasoned birders have probably seen many magnolia warblers by this time in their migration. These are not rare or unusual birds, and I suspect they are rather routine for them—species to be checked off their lists, not worthy of dallying. The birders’ list is long, and the season is short. There are rare species, unexpected visitors to be tracked down, firsts of the year, the county, the state, life. These take precedent, I understand. What time is there to just stand and stare at a bird that has been checked off already when others await? Progress must go on, and so must they. On to the next species.

I am not a good birder, though. I recognize very few songs, and keep no life list, and have to keep field guide at hand if I am to identify what I see. This was a rare migratory bird for me, in that I was able to identify it without the book. (Though I looked it up later to confirm.) Without a list to fill, my goal is simple. Having found this bird, I want to be with it, to watch it, to listen, to soak in its sweet, sweet song, to marvel at its paint job, to observe its behavior for as long as I can. I kneel in the saturated grass, and adjust my support, tilting the camera in the direction of the warbler. It sings, and I see it through the leaves, head back, beak open, seeming to delight in the morning as much I delight in him. Too obscured for a photo, I just watch. Right now, I don’t need to capture him. I have him!

Smiling from my chest, I watch him hop about until he comes back into full view. The angle is not good, nor is the light, but I snap a couple photos I know will not be of high quality before he disappears again. This time, when he disappears, he does not return. I stay, circle the tree, listen, scan, but all is silent. All is still.

A bird flies over my shoulder displaying a flash of yellow. My handsome warbler? No, this bird is larger, his flight more labored—an eastern meadowlark. I follow, keeping my eyes on the slow, undulating flight until he lands in the top of a Leyland cypress at the edge of the property. I stop a hundred yards short and listen to his song as I scan for the best approach through the tall, wet grass. As I ponder, he turns, takes to wing, and is quickly out of sight.

Distant Meadowlark
Distant Meadowlark Sings In the Cloud

I wander back towards the holly, listening for the magnolia warbler song, or any other unfamiliar voice to explore, but I hear only the regulars—a game of concentration I might be able to win. I could easily spend my morning with the usual suspects, but I have work to do, so I head back to the house. As I walk through the thinning cloud, I float on the memory of a moment shared with a little yellow and black and white bird who I will not put on a list, and who has ensured my day cannot get any better!

Here Am I!

A sign at the trailhead tells us how to get along. Cyclists, runners, horsemen and walkers share the trail that winds through my woods. I call the woods mine, because I am the only one who wanders in them, best I can tell. At least I have never encountered anyone else in them. Others use the trails through my woods. Some race through on two-wheeled machines. Others lope along on pack animals, never dirtying the soles of their own feet. A few jog through wearing their special go-fast shoes, hydration packs on their backs. Those folks need rules. In order to remain safe, get along, avoid collision, users of the trails through my woods must obey the signs. Not me. The rules do not apply to me, because I am not on the trail. I am in the woods.

I begin at the trailhead, but the first butterfly, birdsong, bloom, or memory of an old stump where a favorite fungus grows will quickly pull me into the woods. This morning, it is a purple iris that catches my eye. It has been a month or so since the smaller, native flag iris bloomed. I am not familiar with this one and wonder if it is introduced. I move from one to the next. Iris, deep and richly purple, have me lying on my side, waiting for the breeze to still. Photographing purple flowers can have unique challenges.

Purple Iris 2
Purple Iris

A birdsong keeps my ear busy as I photograph one flower and then another. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I! Compelled to answer, I seek out the one calling. “I’m over here,” I say to the woods softly. The chosen lens for this walk is a bit long for flowers, but a bit short for birds. The red-eyed vireo poses perfectly on high branches, but 200 millimeters cannot bring him as close as I would like. His song has no trouble reaching me. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I!

Distant Vireo
Red-eyed vireo asking where am I from the canopy above.

A pair of cyclists buzz by from a few yards away, startling the vireo, and I set a course deeper in the woods. Evidence of last year’s heavy acorn crop blanketed the floor of the open woods with the kind of green that is only found in spring. Joining the young oaks were scattered sassafras trees with their odd mitten leaves. Though the showers of the past two days failed to water my garden, accompanying lightning added enough nitrogen to the air to electrify already brilliant young leaves. I stop by a log known for producing chicken of the woods, but find the cupboard bare. I will return.

Spring Tree
Sassafras, years before its roots will be ready for tea.
White Oak
A white oak, electric green, in its first spring.

Wild waist-high blueberry bushes are throughout my woods. Unlike the selectively-bred bushes on the farm, these show no sign of fruiting yet.  On the farm, they are already covered with flowers, and in the valley, the same bushes would have tiny, rock-hard berries by now. But in the woods, good old fashioned plant sex allows the randomness of genetics and the harshness of natural selection to determine that these bushes will fruit later. I suspect that many generations ago, blueberry bushes with early blooms lost them to April freezes, so that trait was not passed on. When these bushes do fruit, the yield will be high, and the berries much smaller, sweeter, and tastier than what I will harvest from my neat rows.

Sweetshrub 2
Bosom Bush Bloom

Another bush—sweetshrub—is in bloom in my woods this morning. Old-timers remember the day when the reddish-purple flowers from the so-called “bosom bush” were crushed up and used as perfume. The vernacular name comes from the part of the body where the perfume was applied. I pick a bloom and crush it in my hands. It certainly smells better than anything you might buy in a store, and is a heck of a lot cheaper!

The ubiquitous screams of red-tailed hawks behind me, pull me away from thoughts of sweet-smelling antebellum breasts. A hundred yards through the woods, I find three hawks chasing low above the trees—diving, twisting, carrying on. I was not quick enough for photos and soon they rise, chattering on the wind, and depart.

Little Purple
Violets abound!

Before my mind can drift back to the bosom bush, more flowers catch my attention, and I kneel to look at a clump of little white flowers with a subtle purple tinge. Familiar as I am with these delicate blooms perched atop the slenderest of stalks, I do not know the species. That lack of information does not lessen my appreciation for their beauty, however, and I take several photographs. Beyond them, a violet keeps me on the ground until a tiger swallowtail brings me to my feet.

I follow the flutterby on a seemingly random path around the woods. Although she never lands long enough for me to photograph her, the journey is worth it. As she disappears into the treetops, I look down to see a white slant-line moth blended so well into azalea blooms, that I almost missed him. He poses for as long as I care to watch.

Slant-line 2.jpg
White slant-line moth on azalea flower.

My woods are perfect for wandering. They are open and easy to traverse. The trees are young, but the forest is old. It has survived the gashes of mining and the horrors of clear-cutting. It has been dissected by roads, and patch-worked by development, yet it bustles with biodiversity.

Here I have sat beside a newborn fawn, discussing with him where to find mushrooms. I have gently held a just-hatched turkey while her momma watched nervously from a few yards away. I have seen the woods explode with orange when the chanterelles fruit, and discovered lion’s manes high in the trees. I have carefully encouraged copperheads safely away from trails and humans, and watched box turtles flirt. I have taken naps, gotten lost, and found myself.

People travel great distances to find adventure, excitement and beauty. They flock to national parks and forests hoping for escape, renewal, and a feeling of wildness. I, too, pursue those things on occasion. Every now and again, I need to experience the aloneness and vulnerability of grizzly country. Most days, though, all the wildness and magic I need is right here in my neighborhood. All I have to do is stay off the trail. Here, the woods are old, the trees are young, and on this day, all the flowers are purple. Where are you? Here am I!